JENKINS TWP. — When you see a Geisinger Life Flight in the sky, know that it is one of six helicopters in a fleet representing 110 employees who collectively respond to more than 2,500 calls every year — many of them life-and-death cases.
Consider that each helicopter costs $7 million fully equipped as a mobile intensive care unit and the annual budget for the program is $14 million. Every time a Life Flight helicopter takes to the air from one of Geisinger’s five bases, it costs $1,000 per hour to operate.
Geisinger spokesman Matthew Van Stone said patient/insurer payment methods can vary, but for the most part, insurance covers the cost of the transport.
Jerry Splitt, operations manager of the Life Flight Program for four years, has been with Life Flight since 1993 and he still flies with a team. Each base operates 24/7, and Splitt said all employees — including pilots and mechanics — are Geisinger employees. Life Flight serves 30 counties in central and northeastern Pennsylvania.
For its efforts, the American Red Cross of Lackawanna County will honor the Life Flight Program at the Everyday Heroes Awards Breakfast at Genetti Manor, Dickson City.
Crew in Avoca
The closest Life Flight crew operates out of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. Each base covers an approximate 20-minute flight distance, but depending on availability, responses can be farther. From the local airport, it takes 20 minutes to get to Danville, 25 minutes to Lehigh Valley, 45 minutes to Philadelphia and nearly an hour to reach Manhattan.
There were 245 responses in Luzerne County in 2012.
“The residents of Lackawanna County and its surrounding communities can rest easier knowing a crew of talented, highly trained, highly skilled medical professionals is available around the clock to respond to our most critically injured patients in a moment’s notice,” said Dr. Anthony Aquilina, D.O., chief medical officer st Geisinger-Community Medical Center. “It’s a source of great pride that the Lackawanna County chapter of the American Red Cross recognizes the community benefit provided by Geisinger’s Life Flight program and the bravery exhibited by its staff on a day-in and day-out basis.”
Splitt said the program has taken a major change by bringing the pilots and mechanics “in-house” and being directly responsible to the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Now, everybody in the program is working for the same team,” Splitt said. “We now deal with the Harrisburg FAA office, making the local oversight better.”
Splitt says the Life Flight helicopters can move patients swiftly and often are the difference in whether the patients survive or not.
“We’re making a difference one flight at a time,” Splitt said. “Every time we go out, we are making an impact on somebody’s family. That’s an incredible responsibility.”
Splitt said the program is completing a total replacement of its helicopters and each will remain in service for 20 to 25 years. Splitt said the equipment is so sophisticated, each aircraft is a flying mobile ICU unit.
Redmond “Red” Lines, flight nurse and regional manager of the Life Flight program, said calls range from accident victims to medical transfers to inter-hospital transports. Patients can be of any age, from premature infants to senior citizens with critical care issues.
“To us, it’s just another day — it’s our job,” Lines said. “We don’t consider ourselves heroes. We’re here to serve the community.”
That said, Lines and Splitt said the program has received hundreds of testimonials from patients and/or their families.
Splitt said a woman who was severely injured in a car crash recently visited the team that airlifted her to a trauma center. It had happened months before, and the woman had been through an extensive rehabilitation program.
“When she walked through the door, it was a very emotional experience,” Splitt said. “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. Those are the times we realize what we do every day.”
Lines said he always knew he wanted to be part of a program like Life Flight.
“People in this program are the very best of the best. We really do make a difference in people’s lives,” he said.“Every time we go out the door, we treat our patients like members of our family.
“We realize we can’t save everybody, but we always do our best.”
Dr. David J. Schoenwetter, D.O., F.A.C.E.P., director of emergency medical services for the Geisinger Health System, said the Everyday Heroes Award is an honor for the entire Geisinger system.
“The Life Flight team goes out every day not knowing what to expect, and it’s both to their credit and the benefit of the community that they react so efficiently in emergency situations,” Schoenwetter said.